Jon Ross | 23 JUL 2020
New releases of long-lost recordings are on trend, but offer mixed results. These “unearthed” recordings can sometimes be little more than a capitalistic impulse (maybe those selections by a noted trumpeter didn’t need a wide release after all). Some releases add a wealth of understanding about artists at a given point in time.
The new album from The Mark Harvey Group, A Rite for All Souls (Americas Musicworks), captures a seminal live show from 1971. The two-disc set is the result of a found set of reel-to-reel tapes that contained 96 minutes of music. It is an indelible recording that characterizes the immediacy of free-jazz protest music at a consequential time in American history.
When the Mark Harvey Group – Harvey on brass; Peter Bloom on winds; and Craig Ellis and Michael Standish on percussion – entered Boston’s Old West Church on Halloween night in 1971, protests against the war in Vietnam were raging, galvanized by the release of the Pentagon Papers earlier that summer. In the liner notes, Harvey also remembers that the counterculture had made its way to Boston at that time and “the continuing struggle for for school integration met virulent opposition.”
Harvey and his cohorts trade in the language of woodwind pops and clicks juxtaposed against brass smears and blips. Silence is a tool as important as the musical pitches. These tones are divvied out by the improvisers not to show off technical prowess but to create pure emotion. Percussion permeates the performance. Much of the music proceeds slowly, carefully, but can be contrasted occasionally by blinding cacophony.
The six tracks across two discs form a complete, entirely improvised, performance piece. Recited bits of Yeats, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer’s “Orfeo” and Craig Ellis’s “Napalm: Rice Paper” form prompts for the musicians, creating way stations for the improvisers. The musicians played without notation or preconceived ideas in a collective-improvisation framework they had honed over many performances.
The Mark Harvey’ Group’s music stands on its own, but attendees benefited from a complete immersion in the band’s blend of “aural theatre,” according to liner notes penned by Bloom.
“The many diverse acoustical musical instruments and ‘found’ sound-making devices on stage (in the chancel) were arranged as a sculptural installation. The space was illuminated by a few candles and a red exit sign at each of the three doors,” Bloom wrote.
The stage, which also included two illustrations of the tarot cards “The Tower” and “The Moon,” the musicians took the stage wearing hooded robes. Theatricality was part of the message.
Harvey’s unearthed live recording is a release for the times, bringing the free jazz language of social justice to the fore at a time when protests against police brutality are gaining more stream. Also a product of the time—theatrical, thinking of performance and the concept album
Jazz, and free jazz in particular, as political speech was, by the early 1970s, de rigueur. That same year, Atlanta-born saxophonist Marion Brown also released “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun,” the fourth release by the burgeoning Munich record label ECM. The record is a free-jazz work that, by including participation from untrained musicians, is imbued with a political message of equality. The assembled music makers, many of whom were untrained, created a “collective experience,” Brown wrote in the “Faun” liner notes.
“The people that I chose to assist are not actually musicians,” he wrote, “but people who have a sense of rhythm and melody. My idea here is that it is possible for non-musicians to participate in a musical experience without being technically proficient in a theoretical sense.”
Free jazz – sometimes ugly, breathtakingly beautiful – is the music of protest. Harvey’s music is music of uncertainty, of fear and hope. It’s music up for interpretation, with programmatic guideposts. The canvas Harvey and co create is a mirror into how art can reflect current political and cultural struggles. ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.